Highly educated housewives: what an economic waste

In the EU 60 per cent of university students are women and yet fewer women go to work than men. Across Europe, only a tenth of board members and a mere 24 per cent of parliamentarians are women. And the pay gap between the sexes is still 18 per cent - despite the female workforce being better educated.

Europe is today squandering the intelligence of women. Warnings of a European brain-drain have sounded for a long time but many women acquire a university education that is not drawn on. Increased sexual equality is an absolute necessity if Europe is to deal with the raging debt crisis and global competition.

More working women may be the most important part of the solution to Europe's economic and demographic problems. Research from Umeå University shows that if women's participation rates (62 per cent work) were the same as men's (76 per cent), the EU's GDP could climb by 27 per cent.

Naturally, women should work first of all for their own sake. The objective of sexual equality is to improve the freedom of individuals. But in these times of crisis, we should not ignore the fact that women are perhaps the greatest, unused asset at Europe's disposal. The World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap Report reveals a distinct positive correlation between sexual equality and competitiveness, per capita GDP and economic and social development. Reducing the gaps between the sexes is, in other words, associated with a stronger economy, greater prosperity and better living conditions.

It is a shame that many women are still forced to choose between family and career. Sweden has made good progress, even if many challenges still remain. For Europe's sake, Swedish feminism should be exported. Below are a few proposals for strengthening equality:

  • Increased access to childcare. Good childcare should not be a privilege but available to all parents. Even after you have had children, it must pay to work. Childcare should therefore be subsidised or made tax deductible.
  • Better elderly care. Today, daughters often take responsibility for caring for their parents without pay. No one should have to rely on having children for security in their old age.
  • A more gender-equal use of parental leave is a prerequisite in shrinking the gap between women and men in the labour market.

Europe is today the world's richest continent. If Europe is to remain that and not become the world's largest museum, we need to work much harder for increased equality. Europe cannot afford to have the world's best-educated housewives.

Birgitta Ohlsson is Sweden's Minister for EU Affairs